The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa (trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís). Knopf (1963).
“[Into] the wilderness we rode; we were going to invade the sertão, breast the oceans of heat.”
João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande sertão: veredas, titled in one of the sole editions in English, from 1963 (with a reprint published in 1971), as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a novel in which events unfold like those in dreams. The subjects of the novel are described with the intensity of a painting, with shifting points of reference built on and woven into one another: characters within the narrative change names and identities, pass from life into death with little comment or examination; landscapes transfigure shape and color like shifting clouds (one character implores others to “head north: the face of the earth there is more to my liking”). The total effect of the narrative is that of a trail of memory spiraling away into the ether, the narrator of the novel parsing over this trail in order to examine more deeply philosophical questions of great significance. In passages of beauty and violence, Rosa describes an almost feudalistic world, one overrun by hired guns fighting for power in a desolate region of Brazil so intertwined with nature that the novel’s setting becomes mythological, its inhabitants experiencing their lives through a filter of strange mysticism.
The novel itself is structured as an extremely long (500 pages in English), uninterrupted monologue of an old man describing his life to an unnamed listener; the narrator is known only as Riobaldo, or by his nicknames, Tatarana (a spiny insect), and Urutú-Branco (“white rattlesnake”). Riobaldo was once, as he tells it, a jagunço, a member of several renegade mercenary groups fighting against one another in the sertão (hinterland, or backlands) in the northeast of Brazil. (Rosa was himself from the Minas Gerais state within this area of the country, and in addition to his profession as a writer, he worked there as both a doctor and diplomat.). Riobaldo describes the sertão as a place so desolate that it is almost a space of nightmares, where “the grazing lands have no fences; where you can keep going ten, fifteen leagues without coming upon a single house; where a criminal can safely hide out, beyond the reach of the authorities. . . . God himself, when he comes here, had better come armed!” His life exists primarily between axes of love and violence: he has left behind, in his travels, a woman named Otacília, whom he has promised to marry; he also feels a great, perhaps homosexual, affection for a fellow jagunço named Diadorem. The love of these two people spurs Riobaldo onward and down a path of reflection in his wanderings while he traverses through his experiences as a jagunço at the psychological edge of society.
For a work of such high literary value, Grande sertão: veredas is, regrettably, widely unavailable in English translation; the editions from Knopf are both difficult to find and expensive. Contemporary artists whose work might bear comparison to the combination of ante modern or rural human violence, power, and philosophical discourse used by Rosa within the novel might include Glauber Rocha; Akira Kurosawa, especially in films such as Ran; Kagemusha; Throne of Blood; and Seven Samurai; as well as an author Kurosawa adapted to the screen, Ryūnosake Akutagawa; but the landscape of Rosa’s novel seems to share more with the Old Testament, Homer, Herodotus, the Gospels, Dante, Poe, Conrad, and Kipling, than it does with contemporary literature. Over the course of the novel, for example, we encounter such scenes as: a strange confrontation with a leper in an orchard deep in the backlands; an attempt by Riobaldo to sell his soul at a crossroads to the devil; a place where “the earth was burned and the ground made noises,” and where, in “the Brejo do Jatobàzinho, in fear of us, a man hanged himself”; a knife fight to the death with a man thought to be the devil; a jagunço named Ataliba, who, “with his big knife, nailed [a] backlander to the wall of [a] hut; he died quietly, like a saint”; and vicious bandit-warriors preparing for future battles described as such:
it soon became clear to me . . . that they wanted to be known as one hundred percent jagunços, not alone in deed but in looks as well. I even saw some of the men off in a corner engaged in a strange operation: they were chipping off their own teeth, sharpening them to a point! Can you imagine! The tortures they endured would cause vomiting, the agony enough to drive you mad.
Riobaldo’s long monologue itself describes a number of battles and travels within and around the sertão, between chiefs of rival factions of jagunços, and Riobaldo’s involvement with, reactions to, and comments on them. Within the novel there is a fierce law among the jagunços, who exist almost wholly outside of society: here, “the one sentence that means anything is the bullet from a gun.” The battles between rival factions Riobaldo takes part in, moreover, occur for any number of reasons: revenge; attempts to seize power over a region; or in the case of a minor warlord named Zé Bebelo—a jagunço chief who has aspirations in politics—killing and imprisoning rivals in order to court favor with the government. Allegiances to different chiefs can shift in the sertão in an instant; Riobaldo himself almost assassinates Zé Bebelo after abandoning him and joining a rival gang, later saves his life in another battle and impromptu trial, and then joins him again when the chief Riobaldo has left Zé Bebelo’s group for is in turn assassinated.
This heightened speed with which life at the metaphorical limits of society represented by the sertão can both move and violently end provides a concentrated philosophical backdrop within the novel. A manner of philosophical discourse occurs via Riobaldo’s narrative in two main forms: firstly, there is a physicality to the descriptions of the actions of the jagunços as they give themselves up to, or take what they need from, a merciless world, their lives serving as a sort of memento mori for the reader by illustrating the ephemeral quality of life; secondly (and a point to which I will return) an emphasis on spiritualism expressed in Riobaldo’s reflection on the events he describes exists as a form of Socratic overcoming of the limitations of that physicality and baseness of human life.
Indeed, physical description of human existence, and its corollary within the novel of a spiritual overcoming and understanding of the physical aspect of life, serve to express an idea of human culture as above all else a physical process: we are born, mature, and die, like all living things, and our lifespans cannot possibly give us enough time to thoroughly understand the world in which we live. Moreover the physical process of living is—in its impermanence—unknowable and essentially inexpressible in anything other than the most restricted terms of our conscious thought. It is as though Riobaldo is conveying, in the heightened state in which he lives his life, a primal aspect of humanity which is too often overlooked in day-to-day existence, a purely physical mode of survival of human beings which also serves as a metaphor for that part of our minds which does not understand the world around us and interprets that world only through instinct. Rosa’s novel questions in a mimetic way: to what extent are we like animals, going about our lives as though in a dream, truly unaware of what goes on beyond our awareness of the world around us?
This concept of the human body as a physical, transient object within an environment it cannot understand is overtly reaffirmed in passages describing inescapable, primal aspects of human society such as war and lust. The many battles between groups of jagunços that occur, in particular, emphasize the physical aspect of human life with great intensity, as in this example from a brutal gunfight between two rival factions:
The hours were endless. The sun was pouring down on the back of our necks. The sun, the burning sun, under which I sweated; my hair was wet, and the inside of my clothing, and I had an itch in the middle of my back; parts of my body were numb. I kept on shooting.
Descriptions such as these reveal the underlying fatalism governing the lives of the novel’s characters. Although death can come at any moment, Riobaldo says of the possibility of dying in battle: “Death? The thing was only a whish and a bullet. At any rate, you had no choice in the matter.” For the jagunço, the time of one’s death is believed to be predetermined, and so it follows that one cannot die in battle unless one’s time for death has come. The inverse of this idea is that if one is not meant to die within a particular battle, one is invincible, thus reaffirming for the jagunço that warfare is a natural part of existence, its consequences not the product of the will per se but of an outside—and more importantly, unknowable—force.
It is as though death, for Riobaldo, is an ineluctable fact whose occurrence within the present, near, or distant future—when compared against the sum total of time—is utterly arbitrary: at one point in his narrative, Riobaldo describes a man who, worried that he has become afflicted by leprosy, fastidiously cleans his body, but who also puts himself, to a suicidal extent, in great danger in battles. Riobaldo tells us that this man “courted death because of his fear of leprosy, and at the same time, with the same tenacity, he strove to heal himself. Crazy, was he? And who isn’t, even I or you, sir? But, I esteemed that man, because at least he knew what he wanted.”
In one sense, much like the man who takes care of himself out of fear of his fate and yet embraces the idea of death, we are each aware that one day we will die, and we strive to put our destruction out of our minds through ritual or denial. And yet the man described by Riobaldo is also different to most human beings in his attitude toward life because in his recklessness he acknowledges that there is no escaping death, and he confronts, whether consciously or unconsciously, its possibility.
Such a feeling of ambivalence between a state of living or of dying serves to express a side of human existence which is purely animal; Riobaldo himself earns respect among the jagunços, and eventually a chiefdom, because he is a perfect marksman, making death, as it were, an extension of his personality:
At two-hundred feet I could put a bullet in the socket of a tin candle-holder. Not just once—every time. In this way I put a stop to the thing that was burning me up, the tittle-tattle. “If anyone says anything bad about me, I don’t care. But let them do it behind my back. Anyone who comes to me blabbing and tale-bearing is a dirty dog, and I’ll teach him the name of the whore who bore him.” I let them know. . . . I can tell when a man only appears to have been killed, when he doubles up from a wound, or when he falls because he has been slaughtered. Did I feel pity? Is one going to feel sorry for a wild cat, or have compassion for a scorpion?
Through such bare physicality Rosa expresses the aspect of the corporeal part of human life, the idea that we are a living part of a living world, and thus subject to that world’s consequences; moreover, because we are conscious beings, we may become, tragically, even more violent than the already destructive world into which we are born. When Riobaldo chooses to become a deserter from one jagunço gang, he becomes overwhelmed with fear as he realizes he has given himself up to the destructive power of men, who act as a violent force far more threatening than nature:
I could not help remembering other tight spots, and recalling what I knew of those men’s bloodthirsty hates, of the cruelties of which they were capable, drawing out their vengeance with all possible tortures. I wasn’t thinking clearly, I couldn’t. Fear would not let me. My head was in a fog, my brain was spinning. My heart changed position. And our journey through the night continued. While I suffered the tortures of fear.
This episode, and the idea that Riobaldo exists at this point between two violent alternatives within his life—the violence of nature and exposure, and the violence of mankind—is also important in what it has to say about how human culture creates outcasts, and the hopeless existence such a state involves. The human being or animal cast out of society exists, as it were, in a very real hell from which there is almost no escape. (A literary example of this idea might be found in Thomas Hardy’s character of Tess Durbeyfield.) It is one thing to support a war, for example, from the winning side; quite another to be against that side.
Thus in Rosa’s attempts to define, as much as possible, exactly what constitutes human life, and whether we can as human beings understand our own destructive nature, he leads the reader to a manner of spiritual contemplation about the extent to which we exist at the mercy of others, and of the world; Riobaldo at one point likens man to “a weak thing in himself, soft even, skipping between life and death among the hard rocks.” The world exists to us, Rosa suggests, as something which we perceive aspects of but cannot totalize; each person perceives a different part of the whole, but never the whole, and each person’s perception of the world, is, for them, the universe, and a universe which can exclude the possibility of all others, an exclusion that can manifest itself in symbolic or literal violence.  Interacting with a woman who has just given birth, Riobaldo notes: “In taking my leave, I said aloud: ‘My lady, madam: a boy has been born—the world has begun again!’”
In a wider sense the question of the novel becomes: if each person’s version of life is simply the sum total of their perceptions of the world, what exists outside of the world that we call our perceptions?
Related to this question is the very underlying motivation of Riobaldo’s narrative, in that Riobaldo seems primarily moved to tell the unnamed listener his tale by his preoccupation with the existence or non-existence of the devil. For Riobaldo, a sense of spiritual crisis is played out in his concept of an afterlife and the potential state of his soul in such an afterlife: throughout the narrative he repeatedly and overtly questions the possibility that the devil exists because he has been in a profound state of psychological stress following an attempt to sell his soul (an episode of great importance and much ambiguity within the novel), after which his personality has grown inexplicably stronger and allowed him the confidence to become a jagunço chief, and to begin a war against another chief named Hermógenes (also rumored to have made such a pact). Thus, Riobaldo believes, if the devil exists he is damned; however, if he can reassure himself by the telling of his narrative that the devil is merely an absurd concept, then he is saved. Riobaldo says in a moment of reflection, “[Were] we with God? Could a jagunço be? A jagunço—a creature paid to commit crimes, bringing suffering down upon quiet communities, killing and pillaging? How could he be forgiven?”
Moreover, Rosa as a novelist would seem to create, via Riobaldo’s ruminations on the devil, some sort of definition for the forces beyond our grasp, and thus an expression of the limitations of human knowledge. It is as though Rosa is exploring whether or not human beings can come to terms with the state of ignorance into which they are born, and how such a coming to terms must be accomplished. He tries to dimly outline a concept of what we cannot know in our limited human perception. In other words, if we can take Riobaldo’s recounting his tale as a metaphor for Rosa’s writing of his book, we can perhaps compare the exploration of the existence of the devil, as a motivation for Riobaldo’s telling of his narrative, with the exploration of the limitations of human knowledge as a motivation for Rosa’s writing of his novel; Riobaldo’s narrative would become in this way a metaphor for, and a reflection of, the novel itself.
It would thus be through the mystic outlook on the part of Riobaldo that Rosa completes a literary metaphor for the way in which we apprehend the world around us: as human beings we are unable to perceive the nature of our lives, and we live in an uncertain state in which truth is obscure, but is a concept of which we can conceive the existence. Conscious thought creates the idea of evil, and yet what if, the novel seems to ask, evil does not have any intrinsic meaning, for at least in the concept of the selling of a soul there lies the inverse idea that the soul at one time belonged to the seller, and is thus meaningful at representative of the possibility of salvation, an original point of goodness to which human beings can return. It is as though Rosa is asking which is the worse scenario: that we have a soul that is possible to be sold, or have no soul at all? At one point Riobaldo asks his listener, “Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. . . . That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.” Perhaps Rosa suggests that whether we explain the world beyond us through mysticism or superstition, as Riobaldo does, or through the “superior” understanding of science, we are ultimately deluding ourselves; there is simply too much that we cannot understand or hope to understand within the universe. Perhaps also in becoming conscious we have given away some part of ourselves that is irreplaceable and unknowable. In The Seventh Seal, the knight asks Death if, at the hour of his own passing, Death will reveal his secrets to him. Death replies, “I have no secrets.” The knight inquires as to whether Death in fact knows nothing, to which Death replies, “I am unknowing.” A similar burden and paradox of consciousness is expressed in Grand sertão.
Three scenes within the novel in particular are striking symbols of the limits of what we can know as human beings. In one, the jagunço group that Riobaldo is a part of is under siege within a house, thick cowhides around the interior walls of the building serving as their only protection by absorbing the impact of thousands of bullets fired at them. In a moment of quiet after they are fired on, a butterfly comes in through a window, which Riobaldo says appears to be “peace itself.” The butterfly, in its lack of consciousness, is unaware and incapable of understanding the situation of great violence occurring all around it. As though to reaffirm this symbol, in the same battle, the opposing side—unable to kill their rivals through the building—begin shooting those rivals’ (including Riobaldo’s) horses. The horses cry out against the slaughter and are left suffering on the ground as their masters—who cannot leave the house because they will themselves be shot—can only listen. Riobaldo and the other men passionately desire to go out of the building to kill the horses out of mercy, but they know that they will also be killed.
The horses, like the butterfly, are profound symbols of what it means to perceive the world as a human being; they do not understand why destruction occurs on all sides of them, or causes them pain, or comes down on them at random; something that is so meaningful and perversely rooted in reason to men as a battle is for the animals something bringing death with no explanation and no meaning. This is very much like our existence in the natural world; we simply cannot—as much as we delude ourselves—understand either ourselves or the violent forces that surround us, much less their meaning, if there is any, however much we may believe that we do. Like the knight in Bergman’s film, we strive after secrets which do not exist, and long to understand the very negation of understanding.
In a third symbol, a jagunço gang has taken up in a brothel, and after a heavy meal and drinks one of their younger members falls asleep at a table. Riobaldo notes that the boy is carried in his sleep to a soft bed by beautiful women, but never knows that this event has occurred. This is another profound symbol of what it means to be human: we exist in life as though we are asleep, unaware of what is beyond those things of which we are able to understand in the dimness of our consciousness, whether it is that we are, in a symbolic sense, brought to violent ends by devils, or unknowingly carried to rest by angels.
Here again it is not just that Grande sertão is describing Riobaldo’s exploits; it is describing a person who exists at the limits of human existence and who functions as a sort of everyman, expressing in his travels what he has discovered about human nature at those limits. Ribaldo tells his listener, “I am an ignorant man, but tell me, sir, is life not a terrible thing?” Still another reason Riobaldo would seem to put forth his narrative is to describe, over the course of his journey with the jagunços and his possible encounter with the devil, is his overcoming of fear, via courage, as an act deeply attached to an overcoming of one’s perception. Riobaldo says at one point,
I would like to understand about fear and about courage, and about passions that drive us into doing so many things, that give shape to events. What leads us into strange, evil behavior is that we are so close to that which is ours, by right, and do not know it, do not, do not!
The world of Grande sertão is unlimited in its dangers, and again, the dominant types of human experience are base—war, lust, and fear—and drive us into a sort of madness. The only answer in confronting the latter, as Riobaldo would suggest through his narrative, is to overcome animal instinct through courage, a force of action that becomes an almost philosophical undertaking, similar to Socrates’ pitting of reason against brute oblivion in confronting his own death sentence. Indeed, an important fact within the novel is that what separates Riobaldo from his fellow jagunços is a Socratic distance (however tempered by provincial fatalism and mysticism his outlook may also be). He is unable, in his constant philosophical reflections on the nature of existence, as unsophisticated as they might be at times, to fully immerse himself in the world of the jagunços; he can only be swept along in the tide of life, as it were, so long as he can view the process as a philosophical experience while others simply come to terms with their place in the world.
Riobaldo concludes at one point within his narrative that “Living is a dangerous business, isn’t it? Because we are still ignorant. Because learning-to-live is living itself.” Because we only live a single life, Riobaldo seems to say, we are born into a world from which we have no other context to judge the nature of our existence, and no other perspective from which to judge the lives of others except our own—creating within this state of ignorance an arbitrary quality to the reasons and explanations we ascribe to that existence. It is the expression of this idea, and the beauty with which Rosa expresses it, that elevates the novel to a work of art.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon whose main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures. He can be reached at anders [dot] jordan [at] gmail [dot] com.
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